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Pros: Standard all-wheel drive; IIHS Top Safety Pick; reasonable base price; windshield wiper de-icers

Cons: Poor fuel economy on 6-cylinder models; clunky manual transmission; no rear parking sensors or blind spot warning devices

There are lots of mid-size family sedans on the market, most of them every bit as good as the next one. But ask for the security provided by all-wheel drive, and the number dwindles to just a few. Toss in a starting price around $20,000, and the choices drop to one: the 2012 Subaru Legacy.

We know the Legacy's styling isn't radical, but it's not unattractive, either. Most noticeable is its low-to-the-ground stance, a stark contrast to other Subaru products that sit up high, ready to take on the rugged wilds. But the Legacy isn't intended to go off-road. It's an urban jungle dweller, equipped with all the necessary features an urban dweller needs such as Bluetooth, navigation and a killer stereo. The standard Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive is icing on the cake, most appreciated when there is icing on the roads.

Beyond its AWD, the Legacy stacks up well against such heavyweights as the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry. It's got a huge back seat and a massive trunk, offers three engine choices and has an excellent safety record. There's even a sporty turbocharged model that, although it's no Audi A4, is more exciting to drive than most bread-and-butter family sedans.

For 2012, Subaru introduces a new line of radios on its Premium and Limited models, as well as a new alloy wheel package for the base cars.

Comfort & Utility

If your last encounter with a Subaru sedan was more than five years ago, you're going to be in for a big surprise. Gone are the cramped interior, the tiny back seat and the underpowered engine. The newest car to wear the Legacy badge is a large sedan, with an abundance of headroom and rear-seat legroom. The Legacy's interior has a decidedly upscale feel to it, especially when trimmed in the Limited's leather and wood. We are not, however, enamored with the light beige cloth interior, which stains easily and is difficult to clean. And while we appreciate the added room afforded by the folding rear seats, we're puzzled why there is no locking mechanism on the seatbacks.

From the driver's seat, the instrument cluster is large and bright, with a fuel economy meter where the engine temperature gauge usually resides. Controls for the radio are easy to reach and are repeated on the steering wheel controls, but the heating and ventilation controls sit a bit low and can be bumped when shifting gears with the manual transmission. Automatic-transmission models include steering wheel paddle shifters for manual gear selection. A nice option is the All-Weather Package, with heated seats and side mirrors plus de-icers for the windshield wiper blades.

Technology

On the lower end of the tech spectrum is Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity, now standard on the Premium model along with a new radio that offers audio streaming and iPod control. Optional on the Premium and standard on the Limited is the 440-watt Harman Kardon audio system, which has an LCD display, nine speakers and a subwoofer. A rear backup camera is available when ordering the navigation package.

Exclusive to the Limited model is Subaru's voice-activated navigation system. Although we love the huge screen, we are not fans of this system. The controls are not intuitive, the maps are split up over three DVD discs and many of the most basic audio controls are locked out when the vehicle is in motion. The real burn is that our neighbors to the north in Canada get an all-new Pioneer hard-drive-based system in their Legacy, while we are left for another year with the inferior Kenwood-designed unit. We're not feeling the love, Subaru.

Performance & Fuel Economy

Each of the Legacy's three engines gives the car a very different personality. The economy leader is Subaru's 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine that makes 170 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque. Although you can have a 6-speed manual with this engine, we'd recommend the CVT automatic which delivers the best fuel economy (19 mpg city/27 mpg highway vs. 23/31 mpg). Those who require better acceleration and passing power should opt for the 3.6-liter 6-cylinder engine. With 256 hp and 247 lb-ft of torque, this engine provides smooth operation with only a slight decrease in fuel economy (18/25 mpg with the five-speed automatic). The third choice is a turbocharged version of the 2.5-liter engine rated at 265 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Available only on the GT trim and only with the six-speed manual, this engine delivers a bit more performance than the 3.6-liter with identical fuel economy figures.

Safety

Safety has always been a Subaru strong point, and the Legacy excels in both the government's and the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's crash tests. IIHS named the Legacy a Top Safety Pick. Standard equipment includes front side-impact airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. In addition to all-wheel drive, Subaru also equips the Legacy with electronic traction and stability control. The Legacy's electronic parking brake has a hill-hold feature that prevents the car from rolling backward on inclines of more than five percent.

Driving Impressions

How quickly you can reach 60 mph will depend on the engine powering your Legacy. How quickly you can round corners won't matter as much, as all three trims-2.5, 3.6R and GT-use the same MacPherson strut front and double-wishbone rear suspension setup. The GT's larger 18-inch tires do provide a bit more grip, but also deliver a harsher ride. On the road, the Legacy's cabin is remarkably quiet, with very little engine, tire or wind noise apparent. The steering feel is nicely weighted, and the AWD system provides excellent traction, even on the most treacherous roads.

We like the way the CVT paddle shifters help the 2.5-liter make the most of its power; the standard six-speed manual might have been our first choice if it were not so rubbery and vague when looking for the right gear. Although the 2.5-liter surprised us with its acceleration and smooth operations, we still prefer the authoritative power provided by the 3.6-liter engine. If only we could have the 4-cylinder's fuel economy on the 3.6R, it would be a match made in heaven.

As for the turbocharged GT model, we like the sudden rush of power and the cool hood scoop, but the manual transmission just kills this car for us. And, with no automatic available, we just can't justify recommending it as our top pick.

Other Cars to Consider

Honda Accord - The Accord is every bit as safe and reliable as the Legacy, and it has better resale value. But the Accord doesn't offer AWD, and there is no turbo model.

Ford Fusion - The Fusion offers the option of AWD, but not on every model as the Legacy does. The Legacy has more interior room than the Fusion, but Ford's sedan offers much more advanced choices in audio, information and entertainment and electronic safety devices.

Dodge Charger - The Charger can also be equipped with AWD, and its standard V6 is more powerful and gets better fuel economy than the Legacy's 6-cylinder. However, Dodge doesn't offer a fuel-efficient 4-cylinder model, and the Legacy will hold its value better than the Charger.

AutoTrader Recommends

The Legacy model that offers the best value is the 2.5i Premium. Its sticker price remains right around the $25,000 mark, even with the optional Harman Kardon audio, CVT automatic transmission and power sunroof. However, if power is more important to you than price, go for a loaded 3.6R Limited. The leather seating is much nicer than the cloth, and the 3.6-liter engine delivers all the power you'll need without much penalty in fuel economy.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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